Until The Light Takes Us, the first feature film about the rise and fall of Norwegian black metal, is back for another round of U.S. screenings. The film uncovers the truths and ideologies that formed the foundation for the infamous black metal scene -- a movement that triggered an onslaught of murders, suicides, arson, and a media firestorm that framed the scene as a Satanist uprising.
I checked in with directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell to find out what it was like to travel to Norway and spend time with these artists who have garnered a cult-like status over the years.
HG: What inspired you to pack up and move to Norway for two years to work on this documentary?
AA: First of all, we didn't know that we were going to be there for two years when we left! Neither of us had ever worked on a documentary before in any capacity (we both come from a narrative film background). We were inspired not only by the subject itself (which we find fascinating) but also the chance to examine several postmodern ideas including simulation and simulacra and the effects of the severing of a culture's narrative thread in a kind of "practical" way, if that word applies.
HG: What sets your documentary apart from other works (print or video) that attempt to describe the same story?
AA: One basic thing is that no other project has all of the key players involved, telling their own stories. These other projects usually rely on people who weren't actually involved talking about what happened. There are books, shorts, fan videos and parts of larger projects that deal with the subject, but this is truly the only feature length film about it. This isn't an A-Z retelling of the history of events. This is a portrait of key players set within that world. The larger story of black metal is told through their individual stories, and through the story of their friendship.
HG: Describe what it was like to get everyone to open up to you. They had already experienced much manipulation of the truth by the media over the crimes attributed to Norwegian black metal followers.
AE: We gave them the opportunity to tell their story in their words without narration or "experts" to explain what they meant or what their actions meant. The whole idea of an expert in this context is so ludicrous. I think some of them saw it as an opportunity to set the record straight. Some were wary at first, which is completely understandable given their history with the hysterical media reports that were coming out during the heyday of the scene. Varg Vikernes [black metal artist and convicted murderer and arsonist -- started one-man band, Burzum, and played with the band Mayhem] was the most difficult in that way, but his reticence is totally understandable. He was initially (and for eight months) completely opposed to taking part in the film. He was in jail, so we were writing letters back and forth and he just absolutely refused. I think he actually had a very bad experience in feeling misrepresented in the past and it was a huge obstacle. When he finally did agree to participate in the film, he was very open, but it took us a long time to get to that point.
HG: What's your take on the popularity of black metal among the art world? In the film, Gylve Nagell's [member of the influential band Darkthrone] reactions to one particular art opening focused on black metal made it seem like he felt out of place, but he does cooperate and lend his name and image to some of these shows.
AA: I think that the art world is a bit enamored with the scene for the same reason it's fascinated with outsider art like Henry Darger and Howard Finster. To make an over-simplification, when the "Anti-Establishment" people are in fact "The Establishment" as they are in the art world, these kind of complete outsiders serve as the new "Anti-Establishment."
AE: And to set the record straight, Gylve did not give his explicit blessing to be a part of Bjarne Melgaard's [visual artist whose black metal inspired art was shown in the film] exhibit. What you see is our footage of Gylve, which Bjarne used. The film ends on a note of Gylve re-contextualized, trapped. I think this visually conveys a truth and reveals the tragedy of a misunderstanding and the identity this imposes, in a way that Gylve would respect. He hasn't seen the film, by the way. We periodically ask him if he'd like to, and he ignores us on that. He told us before we started filming that he'd never watch the film, that we could get whatever we needed to tell the story we wanted to tell, and not to worry about his reaction because he wouldn't see it. But I wish he would.
HG: What's your reaction to criticism about the neo-Nazi remarks and Aryan pride within the black metal scene?
AE: First of all, what neo-Nazism? No, seriously, everyone talks about this like it's a fact. For the record: the Norwegian black metal scene is not a neo-Nazi movement. It never has been. We understand that everyone is against neo-Nazism and wants everyone else to know that. We are against neo-Nazism. We are also against murder...what these guys were reacting against was the decimation of their culture by the blank corporate global culture which was changing their landscape, hearkening back to a past wave of cultural imperialism. Listen, there are like two Jewish people in Norway, and they're lovely. There are about 500 Burger Kings, with more popping up every day. Varg talks about shooting out the windows of a McDonalds as his first act of violence. He talks about Christians razing pagan holy sites and erecting churches on top of them. The connection is there. Varg said some stupid stuff when he was in jail.
AA: And I hear he still is. We try to show in the movie how he got to that point. We don't want to play into the sensationalism, we don't want to paint the rest of the scene with that brush, and we don't want to give him a platform for talking about it either.
HG: Are there any rumors not cleared up in the film that you would like to settle? When I first started hearing about all of these murders and church burnings, I remember there were far-fetched stories of cannibalism, pagan rituals, necklaces made of bones, and all sorts of crazy stuff.
AA: Actually, from what I've been told, the story of Euronymous [Øystein Aarseth - former guitarist of Mayhem] making a necklace out of some shards of Dead's [Per Yngve Ohlin -- former vocalist of Mayhem who committed suicide] skull is true.
AE: Listen, we can't destroy the whole mythos. Gylve still gets letters from kids around the world, dressed up in corpse paint, and standing in front of a -- wait for it -- Norwegian flag. That is an epic fail of comprehension.
Until the Light Takes Us is screening at Rialto Cinemas in Berkeley starting Friday, March 5.